Application to ARC Special Research Networks Initiative seed funding

Edited summary of text

1. Initiative title:
Reimagining the ecosocial sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin (SR0354558)

2. Initiative summary

Urgent work is required to prevent the ecological, social and economic collapse of the Murray-Darling Basin. Eco-social sustainability, as a long-term goal for the Murray-Darling, requires dealing with complex patterns of settlement, production, consumption and governance. Traditional disciplines are too narrowly defined to deal with this complexity. This research network will advance Australia’s interdisciplinary research on sustainability of the Murray-Darling by creatively bringing into dialogue notable groups of scholars whose work traverses the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. This network will integrate new interdisciplinary research with bold policy analysis and creative representations, to build informed public engagement.

3. Classifications and other statistical information

Keywords: Murray-Darling Basin, sustainable development, governance, ecology, interdisciplinarity, communication

Research classifications

Research fields, courses and disciplines (RFCD): 300903, 300801, 370102

Socioeconomic objective (SEO): 770802, 760199, 760104

International collaboration: India, Canada, Sweden, USA, UK, South Africa, Brazil, Israel

National Research Priorities

National Research Priority: An Environmentally Sustainable Australia

Priority Goals: Water – a critical resource; Overcoming soil loss, salinity and acidity; Sustainable use of Australia's biodiversity

4. Aims, significance and background

The majority of Australians are bound to the Murray-Darling Basin by a web of industrial, agricultural, socio-cultural and ecological processes. Urgent work is required to prevent its ecological, social and economic collapse. Traditional disciplines are too narrowly defined to deal with this complexity. Moreover, a lack of dialogue, policy coordination and federal and state boundaries have worked against a whole-of-system approach.

The central goal of this network is to produce innovative interdisciplinary research knowledge, nuanced policy advocacy and creative communication that will improve the eco-social sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin. This network will bring into dialogue notable groups of scholars from river systems ecology, land and water governance, education, Indigenous knowledge, work and economy, rural communities and development and the visual arts and the media. This network will promote dynamic collaborations among scholars whose work has been influential on the sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin or who have made a contribution to interdisciplinary research around eco-social sustainability.

Specifically the network aims to:

  1. advance knowledge, policy and practice though interdisciplinary analyses of what we already know about the Murray-Darling Basin
  2. create exciting new research themes though exploring transdisciplinary approaches to problem identification and research design
  3. produce bold models of action and policy on eco-social sustainability
  4. communicate new and innovative representations of the Murray-Darling Basin to a range of Australian publics.

5. Expected outcomes

The Australian research community is already a world leader in the quantity and diversity of interdisciplinary fields, and in sustainability research. This network will bring these ventures together in a much more coherent fashion, across research institutions, governments and academic disciplines. Using our stated aims the network expects to:

Improve environmental outcomes

  • increase the social, economic and environmental benefits from sustainable water use
  • enable Australia to cope with population growth and hence link sustainability to future prosperity
  • produce better environmental outcomes, such as: healthy rivers; reversal of biodiversity decline; increasing populations of native fish; and coping with salinity problems.

Advance knowledge, policy and practice

  • strengthen links with international research groups/scholars
  • strengthen Australia’s performance in the knowledge economy of eco-social sustainability
  • advance the mentoring of the next generation of researchers
  • advance a whole-of-system approach that is linked to regional sustainability.

Create exciting new research themes

  • open up the research process to interdisciplinary dialogue at the point of research design as well as analysis and theory building
  • produce a deeper understanding of the social and cultural causes and impacts of environmental changes, particularly the cultural responses to the need for changed practices
  • contribute to the production of knowledge that values Australia’s Indigenous rights and ecological knowledge.

Communicate new and innovative representations

  • strengthen the links between the research community and the variety of publics that use such research: the general public, policy makers and significant end users.

6. Collaborative arrangements

This network is a new initiative that involves collaborations between the empirically driven research disciplines; critical and theoretically inclined research disciplines; policy oriented disciplines; public participation; regional development; capacity building, education and training; and communication with various publics. Such an interdisciplinary group involves the following research groups.

(1) Hawke Research Institute (University of South Australia)

Water Policy and Law Group
Centre for Studies in Literacy, Policy and Learning Cultures
Research Centre for Gender Studies
Social Policy Research Group
Visual Art Research and Design Group
Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
Triple Bottom Line Research Group
Cooperative Research Centre for Irrigation Futures

(2) Charles Sturt University

Johnstone Centre for Parks Recreation and Heritage
Centre for Cultural Risk Research
Centre for Rural Social Research
Centre for Research into Professional Practice, Learning and Education

(3) Australian National University

Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies

(4) Melbourne University

Centre for Environmental Applied Hydrology
The Australian Centre

(5) Flinders University

Yunggorendi First Nations Centre for Higher Education and Research

(6) University of Adelaide

Geographical and Environmental Studies Research Group

(7) University of Technology Sydney

Institute for Sustainable Futures

(8) University of Canberra

Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology


Land and Water
Land and Water: Water Security and Sustainable Communities
Land and Water: Sustainable Irrigation Research Directorate
National Research Flagships: Healthy Country

Our participants are also involved in:

Murrumbidgee River Management Committee
Environment Victoria
WWF Australia
Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists
Australian Conservation Foundation

7. Description of personnel

The Hawke Institute will be the administrating organisation and responsible for network coordination, clearing-house, policy advocacy and communication strategies. The participants will be contributing their expertise in the following research nodes:

A. Governance and policy in relation to water and land

Syme (environmental justice, public policy)
McKay (water resources laws and policies, sustainable water)
Filar (mathematics, environmental modelling)
Moran (natural resources planning, management and policy development)
Bowmer (aquatic ecology, research policy and management)

B. River systems ecology

Khan (surface and groundwater hydrology)
Cullen (freshwater ecology)
Klomp (ecology and wildlife conservation, population dynamics)
Finlayson (fluvial geomorphology, environmental hydrology)
Sinclair (environmental historian, the Murray)
Hugo (rural and regional Australia, population and immigration)
Michell (learning for sustainability, sustainable water)

C. Education

Green (curriculum, literacy, rural education)
Comber (social justice, literacy, place and identity)
Kenway (gender, knowledge economies, consumer cultures)
Kemmis (action research, indigenous education, reconciliation)

D. Indigenous knowledge

D. Rigney (Indigenous knowledge, human rights)
L. Rigney (Indigenous research methodologies, education)
Banerjee (Indigenous ecology, sustainable development)
Rose (Indigenous ecology and ethics, social and ecological justice)
Marcus (land rights, Indigenous culture)

E. Revisioning economies and work

Sharp (economic policy, feminist political economy)
Carson (employment policy, social policy, political economy)
Mackinnon (women’s social history, corporate citizenship, globalisation)

F. Rural social and policy research

Alston (rural gender and social issues, youth and employment)
Gray (rural social and environmental issues, sociology of community)
Cheney (sustainable development, education and public policy)

G. Visual arts and media

Lawrence (gender identity, place and representation)
Tulloch (risk society, cultural studies)

8. Administering organisation: the Hawke Research Institute

The Hawke Research Institute has a growing national and international reputation for interdisciplinary research that focuses on ecological and social sustainability. The institute has a strong track record in organising research activities involving researchers from diverse fields.

Institute staff have a high level of research management experience, especially concerning sustainability and resource management. For example, Professor Mackinnon has been director of our university's Institute for Social Research, and of University Research Development. Professor McKay has been commissioned by UNESCO and the World Bank to research water policy reform, and currently convenes the Water Management and Law Policy Interest Group of the Australian Water Association. Professor Sharp has directed major research projects on public expenditure for the Asia Development Bank and the United Nations. Professor Kenway is working on ARC-funded research projects into the knowledge economy and rurality.

The following is a summary of our activities since our inception in 1997: 

  • attracted at least 25 ARC Discovery and Linkage grants
  • 5 major international conferences and 7 smaller interdisciplinary symposia
  • 4 annual public lecture series on social sustainability
  • visits from internationally renowned scholars (Claus Offe, Eric Olin Wright, James Galbraith) and many seminars by local, national and international speakers (José Ramos Horta, Mamphela Ramphele)
  • 25 research adjuncts and fellows hosted
  • supporting two major deliberative political polls on constitutional models (1999) and reconciliation (2000)
  • established links with many international research institutes.

Areas of study and research

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